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Page last updated at 21:26 GMT, Sunday, 22 May 2005 22:26 UK

Testing times in US-Afghan ties

By Andrew North
BBC News, Kabul

Presidents Karzai and Bush
The two leaders' body language will be observed

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's meeting with President George W Bush at the White House on Monday comes amid unusual tension between the two countries.

His previous visits have been marked more by both sides heaping praise on each other.

This one could be different following renewed allegations of US prisoner abuse in Afghanistan, and disagreements over tackling the country's illegal drugs trade.

Yet one of President Karzai's aims on this trip is to deepen Afghan-US ties, which could lead to permanent US bases here.

Karzai furious

There has been a change in atmosphere though - for which the New York Times gets some of the credit, or blame - depending on your point of view.

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First it published details from a leaked US army investigation, alleging far more widespread abuse of Afghan detainees in US detention here than previously reported.

President Karzai was furious, and publicly demanded the US government punish any soldier found responsible.

If President Karzai is showing more independence from Washington, US officials are happy for him to do so

Afghans here will be watching to see if he is as forthright when he sees President Bush.

But when he arrived in the US on Saturday, it was President Karzai's turn to be on the spot - with the paper publishing a leaked cable from US diplomats here which criticised his leadership in overcoming resistance to drugs eradication initiatives.

The Afghan leader responded in an interview by rounding on his Western backers, saying Afghanistan had done what it could - but had not had enough outside support.

Speaking out

Even before this, there was a change in tone in President Karzai's approach to his closest ally - particularly in relation to the US military and its operations here.

His advisers confirm this.

Allegations of US abuse of prisoners, as well as accusations of heavy-handed tactics and instances of mistaken killings of civilians, have eroded support for the US presence, and they believe they have to speak out more strongly about such issues than they have in the past.

We don't want to be running everything here
US diplomat in Afghanistan

At a recent news conference, President Karzai made much of a plan to exert greater control over US operations here - including a ban on troops entering peoples' homes.

Whether US field commanders battling Taleban insurgents in south-east Afghanistan will respect this remains an open question.

But the issue is likely to be on the agenda when he meets Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well as a plan to take custody of all Afghan detainees in US detention in Afghanistan and in Guantanamo Bay.

'Embarrassment'

In this respect, the Afghan leader is probably helping the Bush administration.

Many US officials here privately admit Guantanamo and the whole practice of detaining people without charge has become an "embarrassment".

"Our problem is finding a way out of this," one official said recently.

Bringing Afghan detainees back from Cuba would certainly help. They are believed to make up the largest proportion of those held there.

Hamid Karzai's security detail
US private security contractors are never far from Mr Karzai's side

However, if President Karzai is showing more independence from Washington, US officials are happy for him to do so. "We don't want to be running everything here," says one diplomat.

Many believe the impending departure of the hugely influential US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad will help.

President Bush has nominated him to take over the US mission in Iraq. Khalilzad, who is Afghan by birth, has frequently been accused of upstaging President Karzai.

Signs of change

Yet the fundamentals of US-Afghan relations remain the same. Afghanistan still needs US support for almost every aspect of its security and development.

But far from pulling away, President Karzai is seeking a "long-term strategic partnership" with Washington.

Covering economic as well as security issues, this will be one of the main discussion issues at the White House.

For its part, the Bush administration still regards President Karzai as essential too, for the country's progress and for continuing its war on terror.

There is no better demonstration of that than the millions of dollars it spends on the private American bodyguard force which protects him round the clock.

Yet there are signs of change here, too. Dyncorp, the US security firm which runs Mr Karzai's protection detail, is also training Afghan guards to take over the job.

Many of them are now on duty. And although still present - the heavily-armed Americans in jeans, T-shirts and sporting ZZ-Top style beards who always flanked the Afghan leader in the past - are becoming a rarer sight.

Perhaps that is a reflection of the changing US-Afghan relationship. Washington is still very much there, but both sides want it to recede more into the background.

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